With each release, Nick Thorburn’s Islands have been essentially a different band. Changing backing members and genres like underwear, Thorburn’s voice is the only thing unifying all of the band’s full-lengths. From the orchestral indie pop of Return to the Sea to the epic, darker rock of Arm’s Way to the electronic synth pop of Vapours, it would have been more of a surprise if the band didn’t completely switch things up this time around.
A Sleep and A Forgetting would have been more shocking if it hadn’t been foreshadowed by Thorburn’s foray into “doom wop” with Mister Heavenly (shout-outs to Punknews user leecorsoisapenis for the low-down this new Islands record or I may have missed it altogether). He is still entrenched in old school sounds, though gone is most of the aggressive “doom” and it’s just straight-up soul, white boy Canadian indie rocker-style. Keys drive these songs more than guitar, and Thorburn explains that he wrote these songs on the piano at the place he was staying in Los Angeles, Calif. after he moved from New York. Though it seems the ivory-ticklin’ of Ryan Kattner (of Man Man) on Out of Love must have had something to do with it too.
Thorburn reveals, “This album is far more personal than any I’ve made before,” and like many great records in pop/rock history, was fueled by a breakup. But for a guy who’s spent his entire adult life in the indie rock spotlight, many of the feelings relate to music or are explained in a musical way. Like in “Never Go Solo,” he sings about singing: "When I sing, I think of my limitations / In my dreams I’ve still got that hesitation / Maybe I was wrong / Maybe this is just a song," flip-flopping from the track before, called “This is Not a Song.” “No Crying” is full of ‘em, starting by paraphrasing the famous folk/blues song “Walk Right In,” then questioning the power of music or his ability to be touched by it: "Listening to the saddest song / If I don’t feel bad, is there something wrong?" Closer “Same Thing” comments on the overabundance and disposable nature of music today: "Turned on the radio / So many songs / This one is good but what else is on?" Later, he turns it on himself: "I can’t wait to see / What’s become of me." And amid all the oldies-lovin’ sonic textures, there’s even a song about Buddy Holly’s widow (“Oh Maria”).
Most of the songs here are pretty chill, with brushed drums and clean, tasteful guitars throughout, though it’s still got some pep with songs like “Hallways.” Its sprightly shuffle reminds me of my favorite Islands song of all time, “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” from their debut. “Can’t Feel My Face” digs especially on a Mister Heavenly vibe, being a little dirtier than the rest, powered by crunchy organ chords while maintaining a poppy classic feel in the vocals. Another favorite here is “Lonely Love” with it’s relaxed bounce and mellotron chords.
Of all the styles Islands have tried thus far, they’ve found a sweet spot here. This is their strongest record since Return to the Sea, with Thorburn’s songwriting shining through the simplistic arrangements. I probably shouldn’t get too attached, though, because he’ll move on to something new soon.